What do you think would happen if you asked President Donald Trump what he thought about Vince Lombardi? I bet his quote would go something like this:
“Vince Lombardi. Now that’s a great American! Great coach. Winner. Tough coach. They don’t come tougher. What a winner, as I said. Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Isn’t that what he said, something like that, right? I like winners. America likes winners. A beautiful man, beautiful. Great coach, and wonderful example of what makes America great. We would have been great friends.”
Well, it would be something close to that. And in the wake of Trump stoking so many NFL fires by urging owners to fire “that son of a bitch” who would kneel or stage some silent protest during the national anthem, it’s interesting to note that at a similar time in our country, nearly a half-century ago, Vince Lombardi spoke up on the social unrest. Trump, during his campaign, would yell at protesters during speeches, “Get ’em out! Get ’em out!” In May 1970, Paul Zimmerman—then of the New York Post, later of Sports Illustrated—interviewed Lombardi for the last time. (Lombardi died four months later.)
As Zimmerman wrote in his book, Dr. Z: The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer:
We were in the latter stages of the counterculture movement, campus unrest, hippies. I was curious to hear Lombardi’s take on all this, and I fully expected some diatribe about people who were too lazy or selfish to work. His answer made me ashamed of myself for trying to stereotype one of the most unusual and perceptive thinkers I ever encountered.
“They’re showing an awareness of things; they’re making themselves heard,” Lombardi said. “They have a right to say what they want, and it behooves us to listen. I don’t know … my own lack of awareness … In my own little sphere, maybe I didn’t see things the way I should have. My kids tell me things, and sometimes I have trouble understanding them. Well, I’ve got to learn.”
I’m guessing, had Lombardi lived longer, he might have engaged one of his players in Washington (his last coaching stop) about what was going on in the country … about the killing of four anti-Vietnam War protesters at Kent State by National Guardsmen, about the Black Power rallies still being held in the country, about the rage among young people against the presidency of Richard Nixon.
Maybe Vince Lombardi would have engaged a player who was becoming socially aware—if he had any on his team. Or maybe at some Washington function he’d have met a player with a burgeoning activist ethos, a player like Malcolm Jenkins.
Jenkins, the Philadelphia safety, has stood with a raised fist during the national anthem. He is one of the men who have formed a Players Coalition, led by four players but with about 40 participants. The coalition aims to have players’ voices heard on the inequalities between black and white people in America and the wrongs of the criminal-justice system in America and the problems of police-community relations in America.
If Lombardi had encountered Jenkins, he might have heard how Jenkins has gone on ride-alongs with Philadelphia police officers to understand the problems of inner-city policing, and how he appeared before Congress to discuss criminal-justice reform, and Lombardi would hear why Jenkins feels the needs to speak up, and to raise a fist at games. Jenkins would have told Lombardi something like he told The MMQB recently: “Athletes have been doing this work for a long time. We just don’t hear about it, and it doesn’t get the same kind of hype. That’s where the demonstrations are useful. There is the awful truth that if we just go out and do the work silently, it doesn’t get the attention it needs.”
Maybe Donald Trump should pick up the phone and speak with Jenkins. Invite him to the White House for a discussion about why players are so angry. Jenkins would grit his teeth and wonder if he was being used. But I believe he’d take the call, and I believe he’d go, and I believe he’d look the President of the United States in the eye and say what he said in that recent interview about the work that needs to be done to bring people in this country closer.
“Guys are protesting for a few different reasons, most of which have to do with the way that people of color and poor people in this country have been treated throughout history, whether that be through police brutality, whether that be through our criminal justice system, the educational gaps, the economic gaps—all of these things play a part into the narrative,” Jenkins said. “There is no one issue that every guy is pushing for, but we are all fighting for the same stuff, and that is equality and justice.”
That would be a great meeting, potentially a healing meeting.
I don’t believe Trump would make the phone call. But I hope he does.
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